Today’s Courier Herald Column:
It’s not uncommon to experience the feelings of déjà vu, but I would be willing to bet that it’s not often experienced through the lens of foresight. As we look back at the big political stories of 2011, there is a hope that you liked the year in politics at least a little bit. It appears that we’re going to get to experience many of this year’s events all over again.
The Georgia legislature dominated state political issues for the first half of 2011, and then again for most of the Summer during a special redistricting session. Much of what was started remained unfinished, and that which was finished may require anything from a tweak to a complete overhaul during the upcoming year.
The early success of Governor Deal was putting together a package to save the HOPE scholarship by cutting funding all but the highest performing students. Various interests have been floating ideas for legalizing gambling under the guise of economic development. These run from Georgia Lottery Corp operated video casinos to pari-mutuel gambling on horse racing.
Georgia Lottery Corp went so far as to commission a study on the casinos, which was then quickly released under open records request. Most influential politicos, including the Governor, pronounced the idea dead on arrival. Jobs, even in an economy with 10% unemployment, did not seem to be a sufficient carrot to entice such a large change to Georgia’s relationship with gambling.
Within weeks after the reports, however, reports began to surface that the HOPE lottery funds may be less than originally projected, with students perhaps facing additional cuts. One generally does well to not believe in coincidence with relation to reports coming from various interests related to state governments. Expect pro-gambling interests to use HOPE as their carrot when they approach elected officials this year. With 2012 being an election year, and with anti-incumbent mood seemingly building, don’t expect many to take this offer this year, either.
Perhaps the biggest contribution to anti-incumbent feeling is the relationship with voters and the elected officials who are charged with delivering them transportation options. In a state with more than half the population living in the metro Atlanta area, and 80% of them living in the Republican dominated suburbs, an inherent conflict between “no new taxes” and “end this gridlock” is alive and well.
Republicans attempted and failed to move the date of regional T-SPLOST referendums during the special session of the General Assembly this summer, as opposition to the plan within the metro-Atlanta region galvanized. While most residents see the need for improved and expanded traffic and/or transit options, the decisions over which projects should be built, how much transit should be included, and whether Fulton and DeKalb residents will be taxed twice to pay for suburbs to catch up with 4 decades of infrastructure neglect continue to threaten the vote.
The negativity accelerated when the State Roads and Tollway Authority converted High Occupancy Vehicle lanes along I-85 northeast of Atlanta into paid “Lexus Lanes”. For a few weeks of transition, traffic worsened as motorists adjusted to the new grid. Even though traffic has returned to normalized levels, the damage has been done. The DOT board has put a much larger expansion of toll lanes along I-75 and I-575 on hold indefinitely. The state appears paralyzed with a clear need to expand the traffic grid while limited in the funds to address expansion. This is further complicated by no permanent replacement yet named for the DOT commissioner. Transportation approaches one of the most crucial public tests without a clear direction or a DOT commissioner to begin 2012.
Lack of specific leadership and control wasn’t limited to Georgia’s overlapping transportation agencies. The Senate and the Lieutenant Governor spent much of 2011 in open civil war. They closed the year a bit more civil, but not so much less at war. Two special elections fought through the end of the year pitted a “Cagle” candidate against a “Senate Leadership” candidate, with the result, much like the Senate GOP Caucus, being split.
But one major issue was settled in 2011 that will affect Georgia government for the next decade. New Congressional maps were drawn, giving Georgia one new district but likely two new Republican members of Congress. Maps for the State House and Senate are likely to extend Republican majorities for the foreseeable future. Unless the issue wasn’t really settled.
Georgia must receive pre-clearance from the Department of Justice before the maps can be officially adopted. The state has preemptively sued in order to expedite a favorable ruling from DOJ or to cut down on time to navigate the judicial system. DOJ’s deadline was Friday, December 23rd, conveniently just after an early deadline for this column. Regardless of the ruling, we’ll at least revisit the implications here at a later date.
Until then, enjoy the post-Christmas week, and prepare your resolutions. At the state level, many have already resolved to make 2012 a virtual do-over of 2011. We’ll resolve to overlook that when we say “happy new year.”